Civil unrest 2020: 3 key takeaways from Atlanta’s front lines

Firefighters face new threats, prompting additional collaboration with public safety partners and needs for enhanced technology


Our nation’s recent civil unrest/disturbance activities have reopened traumatic wounds within our country. Regardless of what has driven these events, we all have our agency missions to fulfill. More specifically, public safety agencies are here to mitigate situations within the unrest. This often places fire and police, literally, in the middle of the ordeal.

Pema Chodron once said, “Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.” With that said, most of us believe that these horrible manifestations are still a major threat to our communities – so we must be vigilant and share our experiences on the front lines.

Many people have asked, “So, what has your organization learned from these activities?” I quickly admit that we have learned and taken away a lot. Mostly, these teachings offer that what we thought we knew is no longer as relevant, and that we need to learn much more. I will share three major takeaways that I see as a must-embrace for fire service leaders.

Frozen bottles of water, bricks, rocks, metal objects and paint wreaked havoc on Atlanta’s vehicles and were an extreme hazard to the department personnel.
Frozen bottles of water, bricks, rocks, metal objects and paint wreaked havoc on Atlanta’s vehicles and were an extreme hazard to the department personnel. (Photo/Atlanta Fire Rescue)

1. Public safety is no longer immune to focused attacks

As public safety officials, we have traditionally enjoyed a cloak of exclusion that allowed us to travel in any direction or wherever the emergency exists. This was especially true for the fire and EMS personnel.

Our recent disturbances hit us in the face early, as our fire suppression units entered the perimeter of an austere environment to extinguish a couple of law enforcement vehicles that had been vandalized and set on fire near one of our college campuses. As firefighters began to stretch handlines, the violence increased so much that a hasty retreat was the only option. Frozen bottles of water, bricks, rocks, metal objects and paint wreaked havoc on our vehicles and were an extreme hazard to our personnel. During the Wendy’s fire, units were blocked from accessing the area and took on a great deal of damage as the task force units were pelted from every angle by protestors.

We must maintain our awareness and safety of our members and equipment because the reality of public safety being the target of various projectiles – and possible snipers acting out on public safety – is very real. Agencies should consider armored rescue vehicles if they choose to engage fire/medical emergencies during these violent affairs.

Strong relationships and trust between sister agencies (fire, law enforcement, etc.) are an absolute must. Everyone is busy with resources that are likely stretched thin, but strong relationships ensure that each agency has the other’s back regardless staffing levels.

[Learn more: Firefighters attacked, apparatus damaged during civil unrest]

2. Provide law enforcement security and escorts

Many of us have used the terminology and practice of a task force/strike team deployment. These teams are awesome and have proven to be very beneficial in the mitigation of various emergencies. For fire personnel, law enforcement officers are a vital component of task forces and strike teams during the unstable events of a civil unrest/disturbance. These teams, when possible, should be established early during the planning phase and be committed to be in place throughout the event.

For us, law enforcement officers in patrol cars were effective as escort units until the teams entered densely occupied areas of resistant protestors. While two to three vehicles leading and following the task force was effective as they moved through thinly populated areas, the more heavily concentrated crowds produced a major safety issue for team members and the integrity of their equipment. Windshields, windows, emergency lights, bumpers, paint, etc., were severely damaged. Thousands of dollars in repairs were required to get fire and law enforcement vehicles operational after protestors pelted them.

The protestors were prepared and committed to prevent responders from getting to the fires that were being set. The smaller patrol cars were not effective at the epicenter of the disturbance. The task force was forced to retreat until SWAT’s armored vehicles, with multiple officers forming an armed perimeter around the task force, were able to successfully penetrate the crowd, incurring little to no damage in the process.

If resources are available, law enforcement escorts (patrol cars) should be used to escort teams near the densely populated areas. The armored vehicles, supplemented by additional civil unrest-trained teams of officers, should join and provide security for fire suppression or medical aid efforts if resources are available.

3. Expand tech tools for use during civil unrest

In Atlanta, we are fortunate to have a very large number of cameras throughout the entire city, including at every major intersection. Unfortunately, the protestors were able to disrupt some of the cameras that had been providing fast and valuable intel.

Medium- to long-range drones, with multiple batteries, were phenomenal, as they provided amazing continuous footage pertaining to movement, congregations and even the distribution of projectiles that were later used against public safety.

The protestors were also monitoring our radio frequencies. They would subdivide into fragmented groups, go in different directions and suddenly disperse. This thinned resources as law enforcement repositioned in anticipation. Therefore, encrypted radio channels are absolutely essential.

The internet and social media have proven to be very beneficial for providing a heads-up to planned or ad-hoc disturbances. Unfortunately, both Fire and Police Homeland Security officials determined that some of the organizers were purposely putting out misleading information about activities and locations. This required additional resources and time to distinguish between real and fake information.

Lastly, protesters were using laser pointers. Public safety officials should consider quality safety eyewear that protects their eyes from these harmful devices.

Keep learning

There is no one set of lessons learned that will ever make us 100% prepared. However, I believe that as long as we are willing to face and learn more about these ever-changing situations and circumstances, we as an industry and profession will continue to provide the premium-quality work that we are known for globally in safe manner.

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